WATERVILLE, Maine — Robert Adams belongs on any short list of great American nature photographers. He has a unique place on that list because his subject isn’t just nature but also its despoliation. Adams, who turns 80 next year, is as much crime reporter as rhapsodist.
Despoliation predominates among the 164 black-and-white photographs in “Robert Adams: Turning Back.” The show runs through June 5 at the Colby College Museum of Art.
Adams’s photographs of development in Colorado during the late ’60s and ’70s made him famous. In their melancholy way, they mark a culmination of the American Western sublime as found in the paintings of Albert Bierstadt and photographs of Ansel Adams. The vastness of sky and landscape endures, even as the march of tract houses and highways advances.
Adams moved to northern coastal Oregon in 1997, having spent time there off and on since 1961. It’s the part of Oregon where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark concluded the westward portion of their epic journey, reaching the Pacific in November 1805. Starting in 1999 and continuing until 2003, Adams took the photographs that make up “Turning Back.” They were published as a book in 2005, to coincide with the expedition’s bicentennial.
The title has two meanings. Adams moves from west to east, reversing the explorers’ original direction. He doesn’t travel beyond Oregon, though, because the second meaning is more important. That’s the idea that we as a society might turn back to — or at least acknowledge the cost entailed by failure to do so.
Adams’s Oregon is a place of great natural beauty, albeit a beauty far reduced by clearcut logging. A photograph of a pair of caterpillar treads amid crushed brush and branches bears the caption “A machine for stripping the limbs from immature trees.” Adams trusts the viewer to note that “limbs” and “immature” are words that relate to humans, too. In another photograph, a beverage can sits atop a stump — there are many stumps in “Turning Back” — its puny size and similar shape mocking the remains of the tree.
Resilience and fecundity counter destruction and absence. Kirsten Adams, the photographer’s wife, is seen beside an old-growth stump twice her height and as wide as a bus; a lattice of shoots grows from it. There are occasional glimpses of old-growth forest, though their fewness reflects how rare such woods are in Oregon today. A Lombardy poplar soars so high the photographic frame can’t contain it. Apples lie on a picnic table in one picture — and fill a wheelbarrow in another. This is nature domesticated, perhaps, but no less pleasing for that fact.
Adams works more in sorrow than in anger, though the sense of sorrow is very deep. “It will be easier to think well of ourselves when evidence of the original forest is completely gone,” he writes. Adams delivers the irony so drily one could almost miss that it’s also an accusation.
While the photographer Alec Soth’s 2012 video “Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree” stands very well on its own, it also serves as a kind of pendant to the Adams show. Soth says it was inspired by Adams’s book “Summer Nights” (1985). The book’s lyricism, as well as its title, informs the video. But where Adams finds magic in and around a small Colorado town in the play of darkness and illumination, Soth shows dusk gathering in Minneapolis at its most mundane: a highway overpass, a shopping center, a Target, a Dairy Queen, parking lots, neon signs coming to life as the light fades. What we see is a world away from Adams’s Oregon, as his Oregon is from Lewis and Clark’s. All three are unalienably American, though.
Reduced to multiple still images — which would mean an awful lot of still images — the video wouldn’t be the same. Sound is crucial to the experience. It’s the sound of airplanes overhead, the sound of voices overheard, the sound of traffic unremitting — “the concrete surf,” as Thomas Pynchon calls it in “The Crying of Lot 49.” They’re sounds that susurrate, and if it’s possible to susurrate visually then that’s what “Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree” does. Lazy and slow and gentle, it feels just right. It’s the rare art video that seems shorter than its running time (6 minutes and 23 seconds). You can watch it online at vimeo.com/53032732.
ROBERT ADAMS: Turning Back
ALEC SOTH: Summer Nights at the Double Tree
Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill, Waterville, Maine, through June 5, 207-859-5600, www.colby.edu/museum